The Lion King Goes Postal


On September 11, Japanese voters go to the polls to elect 480 Lower House members of the Japanese Parliament, or Diet, in truly bizarre circumstances. Bizarre, in that the polling date was deliberately chosen because of what happened in New York and Washington four years ago. Bizarre, because whatever the election outcome, it will not alter the make up of the Upper House which rejected the Japan Post privatisation bill put forward by Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro – this rejection being the supposed trigger for the early election in the first place. And bizarre because of the outlandish figure of Koizumi himself.

Koizumi (whom the Japanese media calls the ‘Lion King’ because of his super-abundant mane) is a product of the political turmoil that has dominated the country for more than a decade. Politics in Japan was once predictable and stale. Before 1993, the LDP factions had simply rotated the prime ministership among themselves. But since that August day in 1993 when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost its grip on power, albeit briefly, for the first time since its inception in 1955, it seems that anything goes.

Heizo Takenaka, Postal Reform Minister and Junichiro Koizumi, Japanese Prime Minister

Heizo Takenaka, Postal Reform Minister
and Junichiro Koizumi, Japanese Prime Minister

In the end, there were only ten months of non-LDP government, but that period signalled the beginning of the end of the LDP’s one-party rule. No longer able to win a majority in its own right, the LDP was desperate to use whatever means possible to get back into power, and in 1994 it did just that with a tactic that would have been unthinkable during the preceding four decades: a grand coalition with its arch-enemy, the Socialists, then the largest opposition party. And with a Socialist leader at the helm.

This moment marked the fall of an invisible Berlin Wall, and the Socialists have since gone the way of those Eastern bloc nations – into oblivion.

The LDP has, in the meantime, clung to power in a coalition with the other minor parties. Their political fortune now hinges heavily on their junior coalition partner, the Komei Party, a political wing of the country’s biggest religious cult, Soka Gakkai. Without this support, estimated to be worth at least nine million votes, the LDP is sure to lose power. Some analysts claim that the Koizumi administration is already a Soka Gakkai government.

Although he is a third generation politician, and has been in parliament since 1972, Koizumi had never been considered to be a serious leadership contender before 2001. At the time, his promotion to the party’s top job was seen as an act of desperation. It had become apparent that the party would lose the upcoming Upper House election under the scandal-ridden Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro. Ironically, to restore its political fortune, the party had to resort to a man who has openly declared that he intends to ‘destroy the party.’

He may not have destroyed the party, yet, but he has all but destroyed the rival faction. As Koizumi came from the faction created by his mentor and former Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo, who had been beaten many times by another former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and his faction, it is hardly surprising that he seems intent on taking revenge on his old mentor’s behalf.

Since coming to power with the promise of administrative reform, he has privatised the Public Highway Corporation, the old Tanaka faction’s domain of influence. And now he has his sights set on Japan Post, another traditionally Tanaka faction domain.

It should be noted here that Japan Post is not just a public, postal-service provider with 24 000 post offices around the country, it is also a national bank and insurance provider. With total assets of 350 trillion yen (more than $4 trillion), it is one of the world’s biggest banks. The repercussions of the sell-off are far greater than Koizumi and others even hint at. The Japan Post assets, mostly invested in government bonds and loans, have been the core of the country’s industrial policies. The privatisation of Japan Post might spell the end of this. Koizumi may be remembered as the man who destroyed Japan Inc, Japan’s brand of state capitalism.

Factional revenge on Koizumi’s part is one explanation for his enthusiasm for privatising Japan Post, but perhaps another more important reason is pressure from the US administration. In 1993, Japan and the US agreed that there were structural impediments in Japan which needed to be reformed, and that the impediments would be listed in an annual report issued by the US under the name of the US-Japan Regulatory Reform and Competition Policy.

While they have no intention of privatising their own postal service, the US administration has targeted Japan Post since 1994. When questioned by parliament, Koizumi has denied this, but the US embassy in Tokyo exhibits the report on its website. US insurance giants and banks have been lobbying for a ‘level playing field’ for a long time. Japanese leaders have caved in to Washington’s demands before, but never so blatantly.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of all of this is the way that Koizumi called the election. He dissolved the Lower House when a number of dissatisfied members of his own party voted down the Japan Post privatisation bill in the Upper House. A deadlock like this, according to the Constitution, should be solved by a joint sitting of parliament, but Koizumi opted for a Lower House poll even though the result will not alter the make up of the Upper House.

Postal deregulation is controversial to say the least. It has split the conservatives into pro-US economic rationalists and more traditional nationalist conservatives. Just like the republican debate in Australia some years ago, there are many who agree with privatisation in principle, but not with Koizumi’s wholesale sell-off. Many fear deregulation would result in a winding back of a universal postal service, as well as the loss of many jobs and assets.

In the upcoming election, any Lower House LDP members who voted against the bill are not just being disendorsed but also hunted. In an unprecedented move, the party is standing its own high profile candidates, dubbed ‘assassins’, against each and every dissenter. In thirty three out of 300 electorates (the remaining 180 MPs are chosen from the party list in proportional representation), renegade LDP incumbents are fighting against these officially endorsed candidates or assassins.

The majority of the mass media is not predicting that the opposition leader Okada Katsuya will win, but a Koizumi victory is by no means a foregone conclusion. The media is heavily Tokyo-based and does not necessary reflect the mood swing in country areas, which are traditionally the LDP’s stronghold. People in the country resent the cities, especially Tokyo. They see their essential services being cut in the decades since deregulation. The benefits of these cuts are only reaped by Tokyo and other cities. The postal deregulation package is not a popular one in the countryside.

On top of this, many LDP branches in the countryside, especially in those thirty three electorates with renegade incumbents, are tired of the heavy-handed treatment of their local members by the Prime Minister. Some branches openly refuse to work with the endorsed candidates and are sticking with their own members. The revolt in the countryside may make Koizumi a victim of his own arrogance.

If he wins, Koizumi will continue his reform agenda well beyond Japan Post. As happened in New Zealand in the late 1980s, postal deregulation in Japan will be the beginning of a large-scale, public asset sell-off.

As if all this were not enough, it seems that heaven also wants to take part in the drama a category five typhoon, Nabi, is slowly moving through the Japanese islands this week and 2005’s 9/11 may be remembered by the Japanese as another day of brutal destruction.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.